Since the US administration announced on January 16th that it would be withholding part of its donation to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) the BBC has produced numerous reports on the story (see some in ‘related articles’ below).
Nevertheless, none of the corporation’s reports to date have provided its funding public with information concerning the multiple issues that have made UNRWA so controversial or any in-depth examination of the agency’s purpose, its agenda, its record or its efficiency.
BBC audiences may therefore have expected to find such information in an article presented not as a news item with limited space but as a ‘feature’ that appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on January 30th under the title “Palestinians fear cost of Trump’s refugee agency cut“.
However, just 72 words in Yolande Knell’s 882 word report were devoted to the provision of superficial background information on UNRWA.
“Unrwa was originally set up to take care of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Nearly 70 years on, some of those refugees and many of their descendants continue to live in camps, which are now chronically overcrowded breeze block neighbourhoods.
Unrwa supports some five million people not only in the Palestinian Territories but also in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – where Palestinian refugees have limited rights.”
Knell made no attempt to explain to readers why people who have lived under Palestinian rule in Gaza since 2005 or those holding Jordanian citizenship are still classed as ‘refugees’ and why some Arab countries give only “limited rights” to Palestinians.
Her approach to the highly relevant issue of inherited refugee status was to present it as an ‘Israel says’ subject – including quotes from the Israeli prime minister – and she refrained from informing readers how that issue is used for political ends or that ‘”right to return” to parts of historic Palestine’ for millions of people registered as ‘refugees’ would in fact mean the end of the Jewish state and hence the politically motivated perpetuation of that Palestinian “call” is unrealistic .
“The fate of the refugees is a core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict and they have often been at the heart of Palestinian political and militant activity.
Palestinians call for their “right to return” to parts of historic Palestine – land which is now in Israel.
Israel rejects that claim and has often criticised the set-up of Unrwa for the way it allows refugee status to be inherited, which it points out is uniquely applied to Palestinians among all the world’s refugees.”
Knell countered that with statements from UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness.
“Unrwa officials stress that the UN General Assembly sets their mandate and dismiss the idea it obstructs any Israel-Palestinian peace deal.
“It is the failure of the political parties to resolve the refugee issue that perpetuates it,” says Unrwa spokesman Chris Gunness.
“As soon as there’s a resolution of that based on international law, based on United Nations resolutions, Unrwa will go out of business and hand over its service.””
She then amplified UNRWA’s current fundraising campaign, citing support from what she blandly described as “humanitarian groups” – with no mention of the blatant political agenda of some of those organisations, including AFSC, Oxfam, Church World Service, Amnesty International and Islamic Relief.
“The agency has now launched a global appeal to fill the gap in its budget and is receiving many messages of support – including from celebrities and 21 international humanitarian groups.”
The prime focus of Knell’s article – over 300 words – was promotion of its main protagonist.
“Unrwa was there every moment for me,” says Najwa Sheikh Ahmed, an information officer with the UN Relief and Works Agency.
“It gave not only food, clothes, education and healthcare but also a job and the opportunity that offers your family.”
Najwa was born in Khan Younis refugee camp and brought up in tough conditions. […]
I watch her eldest daughter, Salma, as she excels in an English lesson. She is one of 270,000 Unrwa students in Gaza.
“As a mother I feel very worried,” Najwa confides.
“If the funding gap isn’t bridged, then Unrwa might find itself in a situation where [it has] to close the schools and health services. My children will be at risk.” […]
“Without Unrwa nobody will identify us as refugees,” says Najwa Sheikh-Ahmed – whose father fled from his home in al-Majdal – now in Ashkelon in southern Israel – as a boy in 1948.
“My refugee number, my ration card is witness to the fact that once upon a time I had a homeland,” she says. “Without this we will lose the right to fight for our rights.”
When UNRWA advertised last year for an ‘information officer’ in another location the job was described as a PR position:
“…maintains regular contact with local or regional and international media representatives; keeps the press informed of the Agency’s activities to promote better understanding and coverage of the Agency’s work, and to encourage the media to use UNRWA as a source of information on refugees.”
In other words, Knell’s main interviewee in this article is an employee of UNRWA’s public relations department whose job description includes contact with the international media and fund-raising. In addition to producing emotional UNRWA press releases, in the past Najwa Sheikh Ahmed has written for local publications and political NGOs as well as for the ‘Palestine Chronicle’, Channel 4 and the Times.
It is therefore hardly surprising that in addition to her story and comments, readers also found amplification of UNRWA’s fundraising and the protests by UNRWA employees in the Gaza Strip.
“”Dignity is priceless,” read the signs as thousands of employees of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees march through central Gaza City.
They fear Washington’s recent decision to withhold $65m (52.5m euros; £46m) in funds could affect their positions as well as basic services which most of them, as refugees, rely on. […]
At the rally in Gaza City, participants focus on the impact of any Unrwa cutbacks on the most needy but also on existential issues.”
While content provided by UNRWA staffers Najwa Sheikh Ahmed and (former BBC employee) Chris Gunness makes up nearly half of Yolande Knell’s 882 word article, once again this PR item amplifying UNRWA’s campaign against the US administration’s reduced donation fails to provide BBC audiences with the full range of impartial information concerning the UN agency that is needed for broader understanding of the story.